The fearless warrior Prince

Clothed with all the regalia of Fijian warfare, the well muscled warrior was both interesting and terrifying to look at.

With a European styled battle axe resting on one broad shoulder, streams of masi cloth blowing in the wind and body and hair marked for war, this huge specimen of a person was clearly someone not to be messed with.

Feared and respected in almost equal measures, Ratu Mara Kapaiwai is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in Fijian history.

This intrguing historical figure emerged when Bau, the tiny island kingdom on the coast of Tailevu, was still the seat of power throughout the land.

Ratu Mara Kapaiwai, who would oppose his own cousin and supreme ruler of Fiji, Ratu Seru Cakobau, was a chief with links between all-important Bau and the Lau group of islands.

Warrior, seafarer, adventurer, joker, and Casanova of sorts, “Mara” made his mark wherever he set foot in Fiji and Tonga.

He is still remembered as the only Fijian warrior who took fortified villages by direct assault, and was described by one writer as “absolutely fearless in battle.”

Overall he has gone down in Fiji history as the chief who refused to submit to Cakobau’s overlordship in Fiji.

A tall formidable warrior with stature not unlike his namesake and Fiji’s first Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, he conducted guerilla campaigns against Cakobau until 1859 when he fatefully surrendered.

Daring seaman and adventurer

As a young man Ratu Mara initially gained fame by sailing a canoe to Tonga.

In fact he returned from Tonga with powerful Enele Ma’afu in 1847 although he eventually fell out with Ratu Cakobau and was forced to take refuge with Rewan chief Qaraniqio.

Ratu Mara would then ally himself with other chiefs including Koroi Ravulo of Vusaradave and Tui Levuka in a formidable coalition dedicated to destroying Cakobau.

According to author AC Reid in his book Tovata 1 and 2, Ratu Mara was constantly on the move, sailing from island to island, and was renown for his daring seamanship.

“The name Kapawai alluded to his driving the big drua through waves like a comb through hair,” wrote Reid.

“After one attempted voyage to Tonga when he was driven back by storm, his helmsman died from internal injury caused, it was thought, by the pressure of the great steering oar.”

A tale is told in Tonga of how the town of Houma, after a protracted siege, sent ambassadors to King George to hand in their submission if the king would spare the town.

According to an article by Gustav Mara Hennings published in the Fijian Society Journal of 1910 Ratu Mara, one man, was used to frighten people into submission.

“King George, who was as much a statesman as a warrior accepted the terms. The submission of the Houma people was, however, not genuine, but part of a plot to murder the king, who would be at the head of the “kava ring” after having accepted the tokens of the submission.

“One the morning when the ceremony was to take place the king told Mara that he had full particularly of the plot, but that, in spite of it all, he would attend the ceremony with only a few followers, being certain that his presence alone would overawe his enemies.

“It has been told afterwards by the people of Houma that they were fully intent upon carrying out their dastardly plan, especially when they saw the king appear with only a few followers.

“But the sight of a huge warrior seated on the war-fence very close to the house where the offering was to take place, with his face fully blackened, his streamers of tapa blown out by the wind to their full length, dressed in a manner foreign to the Tongans

“The great battle axe glistening in the sun, the handle grasped by both hands and resting on his shoulders; the otherwise motionless figure, with the exception of a slight lifting and drooping of the elbow, as if the figure was already bearing and keeping time to the death hunt; this figure sitting so motionless, and looking down on the people from the height of the fence, ready to spring down upon them at any moment so worked upon they submitted to the terms imposed upon them without a murmur.

Finally Ratu Mara’s visit to Tonga came to an end at last.

“He had fought at the side of the king at Bau, which was still heathen, at Houma, etc, and had been feted everywhere,” Hennings wrote.

In Ha-apai he met the Tamaha, highest ranking dignitary in pre-Christian Tonga, and revived the ancient connection between her island of Tugua and his native Moala.

“The time had come for Mara to bid farewell to his friends of Tonga, and King George, in order to show further honour to his guest, ordered some of the highest chiefs in the land, such as Maafu, Uga, Vugakoto, etc, to accompany Mara to Fiji.

“It is scarcely known, nowadays, that though Maafu may have visited Fiji before, this was the voyage to Fiji that brought Maafu as a permanent resident to these shores.

The people of Moala, in Fiji, derive their connection to Tonga through Tugua and since he was a vasu to Moala, Ratu Mara was allowed privileges at Tugua.

It is even said that, on hearing of the missionaries in Tonga, he declared his intention of inviting them to Fiji to displace the religion in which he no longer believed.

Noble heritage

Of high ranking lineage, Ratu Mara was the son of Ului Bureta by Roko Mere Veisa, a daughter of Nayaca of Lakeba.

According to Wikipedia Ratu Mara’s father was Ratu Vuibureta a half-brother of Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa of Bau, who was the son of Ratu Banuve, Vunivalu of Bau.

Mara was therefore not only a potential contender for the title of Vunivalu of Bau, but vasulevu , from which came many of the great canoes on which Bau’s naval might rested. His mother was Roko Mere Veisa of Lakeba in Lau.

Ratu Mara was married to Adi Loaloakubou, daughter of Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa and Adi Talatoko of Somosomo. They had one son, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi I, who became the father of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna and others.

His grandmother was Adi Talatoka, who was the daughter of Ratu Yavala (Tui Cakau) of Somosomo and Adi Levulevu of the Roko Tui Bau Royal Court. Adi Levulevu and Adi Savusavu (Ratu Cakobau’s mother) were sisters.

Besides being a primus inter pares (prince who was first among equals) of Bau, Ratu Mara was vasu levu to Lau.

It was this connection with Lau that distinguished him from his brother’s chiefs, since through that connection he held sway over the windward islands which also brought him in enormous wealth in the shape of commodities so highly prized at Bau.

According to the book Tovata I and II by A C Reid, Mara was in fact conected through his mother and both grandmothers — with the old and new dynasties on Lakeba, with Moala and with Ono.

“Being rich combined with a winning manner and possessing great stature and personal beauty it would have indeed been strange if he had not been popular.

“Even Cakobau it seems was attached to him,” he wrote.

However during one of his stays at Bau island, Ratu Mara fell into disgrace when he fell for a married woman of rank. He apparently had an affair with a princess from Bau who was married so was banished to Lasekau to Gavidi.

In Tonga, where he excelled in all manly sports like wrestling and spear throwing, he also helped revive and carry on the traditional skills of canoe building.

“At the insistence of the Tomaha, he vasu-ed a great war canoe, in order to revive and illustrate to the younger generations the relationship between the inhabitants of Tugua in Tonga and of Moala in Fiji,” wrote Hennings.

A special friend

Ratu Mara who was highly intelligent was a hit with the white population in Fiji and was quite a character as described by a Mrs Collins, the wife of a schoolmaster stationed at the Wesleyan Mission at Lakeba.

“He seemed so surprised and pleased that I did not fear him, or show anger at some of his rather atrocious doings,” she wrote.

“He was a tall handsome man, with a very sparkling humour.”

“I was usually very stern with him. One day he called at our little house at the back of the mission premises and asked to have tea with us while in perfect heathen dress — that is having just a bit of sulu. I told him that if he was my friend as he said, he should come decently dressed and eat with us.

“I refused to shake hands with him and proceeded to prepare the meal, while my husband talked with him. When ready, I retired to the bedroom (separated by a 6ft partition and Mr Collins began to serve the food.

Mara called out “Marama! Are you not coming to eat with us, “No!” I said, “Not until you come properly dressed and behave like a chief.

“He called out many times and seemed to be enjoying the situation, I bade him good day from the bedroom, and he said he would come better dressed next time.

“Before leaving he called out “I am a poor man and have no trousers. You should give me a pair.

“I replied that I was the poor one, he was vasu to Lakeba and have what gatu he required.

“Sa vinaka! Are we still friends?” Yes,” I said. Then I’ll dress better next time.”

Ratu Mara eventually gave into the woman’s demands and dressed better.

“At last he came with a big sulu gatu and a shirt looking quite decent, so we shook hands and I sat at table with him,” Collins continued.

“Even after he showed me many kindnesses and I had many opportunities of talking to him endeavouring to induce him to live a better life. But his love of adventure drew him on in the old course.”

The warrior would go on to nickname Mrs Wilson “The Fearless Lady,” and went out of his way to ensure a safe passage from Bau to Rewa for Mrs Collins and her friend, the wife of a trader named Thompson who operated near the Rewa Mission Station.

This was a very dangerous journey for the travellers since at the time Bau was at war with Rewa, but ” the venture was only seriously thought of because Mara was my friend”.

Executed at Bau

Meanwhile the rift between Mara, his allies and supreme Fijian overlord Cakobau would continue until a fateful meeting in which the Bau chief enlisted the help of Tongan King George I and his ferocious band of mercenaries.

Ratu Mara was to be defeated in the battle of Kaba in 1855 in which Cakobau fought his enemies from Rewa and Bau.

The Tui Viti was supported by a strong fleet from Tonga, sent by George I and Ma’afu who was governor of the Tongan population in Fiji.

The battle was a major victory for Cakobau, thanks largely to his Tongan allies, and consolidated his leadership over Fiji.

It also, however, marked his dependency on the military power of Tonga, particularly since Ma’afu remained in Fiji.

A few years would pass before Ratu Mara would be induced into returning to Bau to submit to Cakobau and more pressure was brought to bear for him to do so.

“Mara went to Bau to the house called the Tui ni Toga and from thence proceeded with his soro to Uluinivuaka where Cakobau with his chiefs awaited him,” Collin’s account continued.

He had been earlier given an assurance by Ratu Jone Colata and Masau, a chief from Bua, that they would carry the token of submission to Cakobau.

However it did not work out as planned for the chief.

“It seems that Jone Colata’s heart failed him in the presence of the Vunivalu and the assembled chiefs,” wrote Collins.

“In silence he sat there and in silence the overlord looked upon the would-be petitioners.

“Mara who had felt insulted on a former occasion by Maafu felt this second failure of his friends keenly.

“Without a word he stood up and left the council hall.

“Cakobau immediately gave orders for his arrest and addressing the assembled chiefs asked them to decide upon the life and death of Mara.

The chiefs all voted for his death by execution and the following day, 8 June 1859, the sentence was carried out by strangulation.

According to Collins the condemned chief repented, knowing his time was finally up.

Apparently Ratu Mara had requested that Mr Collins, who he regarded as a “special friend”, to be at the execution, and he had requested school master brush the naval officer’s suit, he would wear to his death.

“He said his punishment was quite just — that he had been a very bad man and had caused the death of very many people, but that he sincerely repented of his sins and looked for mercy believing that in God his sins were being pardoned,” wrote Collins.

And so ended the life of a warrior and Fijian prince whose exploits, both on land and sea, were talked about long after his death.

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